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Mood-Altering Vs. Self-Medicating: Why Do People Abuse Drugs?

By Cathy Patterson-Sterling, MA, RCC
Director of Family Services

There is a common assumption that people who abuse alcohol, drugs, or any mood-altering substances are really self-medicating trauma or unresolved issues in their lives. Therefore the drug or chemical substance is used as a way to block out emotional pain. Of course there are many people with traumatic childhoods or have witnessed horrendous events who do mood-alter away their unresolved feelings with substances. In essence, they do not want to feel anything but numbness. There are also many people who have comorbid mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, etc. who use mood-altering substances to calm down or elevate their moods because they have not addressed their own underlying and pre-existing mental health issues. But every person who abuses chemical substances is not necessarily “self-medicating” their unresolved emotional (trauma) or comorbid mental health issues.

What about people who come from happy childhoods and non-traumatic backgrounds who do not have underlying mental health issues?

For example, some individuals have emotional triggers for cravings that lead to their substance abuse that are not related to problems of any kind. People may go through binge cycles as they “become triggered” around using their drugs at the time of being paid as if the money they have earned is “burning a hole in their pockets” and they need to spend their finances in a reckless manner with drugs. Some individuals will crave drugs also when events in their lives are going well. For instance, these people are getting along with their spouses and might even be celebrating some great news in life. Such individuals have a self-sabotage pattern because they turn events into something terrible by going on drug-using binges which they know will upset their families etc. In counselling, these people often need to explore why they are uncomfortable with success. Often in many cases such reasons relate to underlying feelings of inferiority, lack of worthiness, fears that their happiness will be taken away by outside variables, etc. Therefore these individuals with self-sabotage patterns destroy their own success before they allow outside influences to ruin their happiness. They do not trust that they can remain happy or are worthy of these great circumstances, so instead, they self-sabotage.

There are endless reasons why people abuse alcohol, drugs, and mood-altering substances. The main point to consider, however, is that psychology does play a role and that people are not cured from addictions just because they have started a recovery program that helps them maintain sobriety. All people have their own unique addictions cycles and they will have to explore their own personal reasons underlying their self-destructive actions. Also, these same people need to recognize that they have the biology or predisposition to abusing chemicals and should be careful not to think that once they have resolved their emotional issues that they can return to a life of drinking. Social drinkers have this luxury, but alcoholic or chemically dependent people with real addictions likely cannot just “outgrow” their addictions.

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